The whole point of data integration is to provide timely access to all the data pertaining to your operations and business processes. But you don't want to be inundated with irrelevant data. You want only the data that pertain to what you're working on and responsible for. For instance, an engineer in charge of running a process or assembly line is looking for a complete picture of how the instruments and machines in the line are functioning, not an accounting of the company's financial data. On the other hand, the company's CFO doesn't need to know that machine A in line 2 is down; the CFO is concerned with the bigger picture. The trick is to bring the relevant data together in one view. And this is where the dashboard comes into play.
A dashboard is a graphical user interface that organizes and presents information in an easy-to-understand format. But it's more than that. Some dashboards can gather information from multiple sources, such as sensors and SCADA systems, and integrate the information in a combined display of key performance indicators.
Susan Lamb, a product manager at Camstar, Inc., a provider of manufacturing execution systems, recently told me, "people are looking for a display that they can quickly scan to find out if things are in order and see if there is a problem that they need to address. By using color, charts, and pictures, the dashboard's display should make it possible for the user to quickly analyze conditions. It needs to express what's going on visually. People are not going to scroll down through long columns of numbers to find significant readings or conditions."
For this reason, a dashboard is a composite display of graphics specified for and by the individual user. It can include trending visuals, such as statistical process control (SPC) charts and run graphs, or static gauges, such as a speedometer that shows the run speed of a process line, a thermometer that shows temperature sensor readings on machinery, or a storage tank that shows the volume of ink available for a printing process. The bottom line is that you decide what is relevant, what is displayed, and how it is presented. This is all done with simple configuration tools. No programming required!
The dashboard should also support automatic alerting. For example, if you're interested in the temperature readings used to monitor machinery or a process, you should be able to configure the dashboard to display an alert if those temperature readings are out of spec for 10 s. And you should be able to configure the dashboard so that it displays alerts in a particular color—say, red.
These early warnings are one of the main benefits of using a dashboard. You're alerted to problems sooner, giving you a much better chance of solving them early on. The ideal is to prevent problems; this kind of visualization is a means to that end.
"We have SPC charts and run charts on dashboards enabled by GE Fanuc's Real-Time Information Portal," says Peter Schmitz, a quality manager for Tetra Pak, a supplier of liquid food processing and packaging systems. "They let you know when your processes are trending out of control before the fact rather than after the fact."
Most dashboards are Web- and browser-based. They're dual-purpose devices that serve intranet information for operational staff within your organization or facility and can be an Internet-based resource for your customers and suppliers on the outside.
According to Schmitz, dashboards facilitate data sharing and reduce the cost of the enabling software. "Our system is a Web-based format. It runs in your Explorer Web browser, and it can be accessed from anywhere in the factory. You don't need to have the software installed on every computer. It makes the information available to everybody, including operators. Not everybody can have a maintenance database on their machine, but if you can export the data to a dashboard, they have easy access to it." For Schmitz, the main benefit of using the dashboard is better process control.
Tom Kevan is a freelance writer/editor specializing in information technology and communications; firstname.lastname@example.org.